By R.A. Dyer
Stage illusions. They’re big, impressive and flashy — the awesome muscle cars of the magic world.
Assembly 206 members were treated during their February meeting to an exclusive behind-the-scenes peek at the big stage illusions of Esther’s Follies, home base of the famous Ray Anderson.
Arguably the state’s most famous illusionist, Anderson has spent more than 30 years getting impaled on swords, levitating pretty assistants and using cannons to fire a dog through a plate glass window. Almost the entirety of his career has been spent at Esthers, making him one of the longest-serving house magicians in the United States.
Anderson was joined on stage by local faves Kent Cummins, Bertil “Black Bert” Fredstrom and Peter “The Adequate” Hinrichs. Cummins also served as master of ceremonies and was the mastermind behind the special “field trip” meeting at Esthers.
Cummins kicked off the evening with a sampling of his own rousing stage show, a prime example of old time magic. He produced flower bouquets and giant colorful silks.
“It’s retro,” Cummins explained. “It’s classic, the way that magicians were 100 years ago — this is how Harry Blackstone, Sr., started. … And it’s the way I think a magician is supposed to look like.”
Cummins discussed both the appeal — and the challenge — of mounting a stage show with big props. “If I had a briefcase show, it would be a lot easier,” he quipped.
Bertil “Black Bert” Fredstrom, who followed Cummins, said one appealing method to perform stage magic is to begin with an empty stage, and then to leave it completely crammed with colorful items. To illustrate the principle he screened a video of a famous Swedish illusionist who produced a multitude of tables and vases, seemingly from nowhere.
As an aside, Fredstrom urged magicians with stage magic ambitions to not eschew makeup. “I put on makeup — otherwise I would wash out” under the stage lights, he said
Peter “The Adequate” Hinrichs argued for a less-is-more approach. He stressed the importance of connecting emotionally with the audience — “the right presentation can be very powerful, even with no big set,” he said.
To illustrate the concept Hinrichs performed a sponge ball routine. There was no patter — just Hinrichs producing sponge ball after sponge ball form his mouth. But it was all set to classical music, and made interesting through the magician’s pantomime moves. The bit has served for years as an effective opener to the “Peter The Adequate” stage act.
Hinrichs also demonstrated a rope trick that required audience participation. It filled the stage not with props, but with audience members. “While I love big productions, they’re not always necessary,” he said.
Anderson, the evening’s big closer, demonstrated the workings of one of his illusions — an impressive pole levitation. He discussed the challenges presented by the apparatus itself, the necessary timing, the effective use of stage assistants, the need for misdirection and stage craft.
Anderson performs several illusions during each of his evening performances. He also changes many of them out between seasons at Esthers. Some of the unused illusions Anderson stores for use as emergency backups. Others he resells. “I’m not sentimental about it,” he said, referring to the buying and selling of the big props.
Anderson generally bases his illusions on established effects, he said, although he often asks designers to customize them to his own specifications. He said he deals with a number of respected manufacturers and illusion designers, among them Jim Steinmeyer who designed illusions for Doug Henning.
The operations of many of his illusions are quite complex and so Anderson carefully consults a check list before each performance. He also has suffered accidents on stage, like the time an assistant plummeted to the stage during a levitation.